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November 2001 - Versailles: The Lovely Town Beyond the Chateau

by Karyn Taeyaerts

3,000,000 people per year visit the Château de Versailles. They return with tales of the Hall of Mirrors, LeNotre's formal gardens, or Marie-Antoinette's hamlet of country cottages. However, the town that evolved in the orbit of the Sun King goes largely unnoticed. This month, Paris Insights shines light on this lovely town, a real jewel. Versailles provides the savvy traveler with a glimpse of French life outside the walls of Paris, yet within a short train ride.

Three days a week the town's open-air markets bustle with the goods of local merchants. Even long-time Paris residents marvel at the choice and abundance. Here exists the freshest of fruits, vegetables, fish and fromage. Ranging from the familiar to the exotic, the colors and smells of the garden's bounty overwhelm. Six types of plums, dried fruits so succulent that they have been misnamed, delicate French haricots verts, ten kinds of greens. There are more cheeses in France than days of the year; the stands reflect this fact. You can describe your preferences and the skilled fromagier will compile a selection of different textures, milks and flavors for your cheese course.

The fish come direct from the Atlantic, and the merchants will open your oysters, filet your turbot, prepare your escargots as you request. There are whole stands dedicated to mushrooms: chanterelles, girolles, cepes, or the common button. Need eggs? Goose, chicken, quail? The poultry and game choices are exhaustive. The whole town seems to be present and the energy is palpable. All around the market, cafes and bistros offer a perfect seat to observe the festivities.

Off to one corner, tiny pedestrian streets wind around to a passage filled with antique shops. Old books, furniture, jewelry, silver, china, maps fill the small shops off the cobblestone path. The larger streets are lined with fine stores, selling everything from unique gifts to beautiful clothing.

Versailles is a family town, a suburban enclave for the working professionals of Paris. As such, there are wonderful toy stores with the classic dolls and wooden heirlooms and an abundance of children's clothing and shoes stores. The patisseries and boulangeries tempt you with their specialties or simply a loaf of warm, fresh-from-the-oven baguette.

French royalty did not only leave its mark on Versailles with the château, but also throughout the town itself. Historic monuments abound. Each of the two primary neighborhoods takes its name from its local church: Notre-Dame and Saint-Louis. The former was built by Louis XIV and the latter by his great grandson, Louis XV. Across the street from the château are the old stables, the Grandes and Petites Ecuries. One now houses a museum dedicated to carriages and the other houses one of the region's excellent architecture schools.

For those who prefer strolling outside instead of visiting a museum, the town does not disappoint. Of course, the grounds of the Château de Versailles are spectacular. But, visitors who only come to see the château will miss the hidden alleyways and preferred corners favored by the locals. There are bikes to rent in order to cover more territory. The long promenade past the Trianon, out to the little farm and beyond to the wildflower gardens is a joy. The unique pears and apples Louis XIV desired still grow today in the King's kitchen garden, the Potager du Roi. Designed in the 17th century to meet the culinary requests of a demanding King, these gardens can be toured and a taste can be brought home in the jams, ciders and soups sold on site.

When all of this touring has made you hungry, Versailles' many restaurants can satisfy your appetite. Whether you desire simply crêpes or a five-course French feast, all are available. One of the seafood merchants operates an outstanding restaurant with the freshest of the day's catch. A charming salon de thé is tucked away in the heart of the antiques market. The local favorite boulangerie offers a mouthwatering selection of sandwiches and salads perfect for a picnic.

While the Château de Versailles is on most tourists 'must-see' list while visiting Paris, the town itself should be added. Easily accessible by train (there are three stations that serve Versailles) it is an easy day-trip from Paris. To really appreciate the flavor of the vicinity and get beyond the well-trodden path that tourists follow, consider an overnight visit. Luxury chambre d'hotes and comfortable inns, as well as four-star hotels are there to serve you.

Let Discover Paris! add another dimension to your French experience by opening the doors to the town of Versailles. Our travel planning specialist will design a customized itinerary for you or meet you there to conduct a personal tour. Contact us for more information!

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2001